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A New Look At the Spanish Inquisition    

Edward O'Brien

We're all familiar with the popular idea of the Spanish Inquisition, which for centuries has been depicted as a monstrous tyranny imposed upon Spain by sinister Church and state officials. Bent on wiping out heresy, the Inquisition, we were told, arbitrarily arrested innocent Spaniards accused of heresy and browbeat them during endless and unjust interrogations, often torturing the accused to secure meaningless confessions. The condemned were then sent to vile prisons, there to await death by burning at the stake. Some fundamentalists have claimed that millions died in this fashion.

Bigoted, ignorant, and fanatical Dominican friars are shown zealously directing this cruel and dark page of Spanish history. What Protestant or Catholic child has not heard of the fearful, macabre horrors of the dungeons of the Inquisition? Men of great imaginative genius such as Edgar Poe have written of inquisitorial terrors as though they were worse than the Gestapo's. I remember being appalled by the powerful prose of Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum.

Historians have known for some time that the popular view of the Spanish Inquisition is only part of the "Black Legend"-that body of writings which, since the 16th century, has vilified both Spain and its Catholic faith. In the 16th century, Catholic Spain was the great continental power. Her Protestant enemies were jealous of Spain and many resorted to lies to help bring down Spanish power and control. Spaniards were described by Northern Europeans as dark, cruel, greedy, treacherous, ignorant, and narrow. The Inquisition was fiercely attacked with gross exaggeration. Thus, a combination of political rivalry, contempt for the Catholic faith, and anti-Spanish racism created a distorted image of the Inquisition.

Now, however, new and startling information is beginning to blow away the dark cobwebs of lies and myths-that racist distortion of the Spanish national character and and Hispanic culture. On June 9th, 1995, the BBC documentary, The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition was aired on Ancient Mysteries. TV often trashes the Church, but not this time. Spanish scholars using computerized searches through the actual records left by the officers of the Inquisition are showing that the Inquisition had neither the power nor the desire to put Spain under its control.

Historians interviewed on the program claimed that four out of five Spaniards in the 16th century lived in the countryside, far from the cities where the Inquisition operated. Transportation was primitive by our standards. The inquisitors had to journey to the country to question people about heresy. But the roads were bad in winter, while the summers were fearfully hot. The inquisitors, citified university lawyers, were often reluctant to make the journey. Furthermore, the Spanish countryman was unversed in matters of sophisticated theology: He was concerned with physical survival. Heresy was not likely to arise. And the parish priest of a village, informed that inquisitors were finally making a visitation, would tell his flock not to make any accusations against anyone, to say as little as possible, and the inquisitors would go away. Such details are not the stuff of macabre legends, but they ring true. In fact, the whole tone of the BBC presentation was cool, crisp, factual, low-key, and convincingly modern.

A most important point made by the Spanish scholars is that the inquisitional courts of the Church were both more just and more lenient than civil courts and religious courts elsewhere in Europe at the time. Prisoners in Spanish secular courts, knowing this would sometimes blaspheme in order to be sent to the courts of the Inquisition where conditions were better.

Modern Spanish scholars point out that other nations have worse records than Spain in dealing with heretics. English Catholics suffered horribly under Protestant regimes. American historian William T. Walsh writes: "In Britain, 30,000 went to the stake for witchcraft; in Protestant Germany, the figure was 100,000" (Isabella of Spain, p. 275). In Scotland, too, alleged witches were cruelly put to death. Karl Keating quotes from the Catholic Encyclopedia: "It is well-known that belief in the justice of punishing heresy with death was so common among the 16th-century Reformers-Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and their adherents-that we may say their toleration began where their power ended" (C.E., s.v., "Inquisition," 8:35). Such facts are embarrassing to lovers of the Black Legend.

Two books useful for Catholics who want to learn about the real Inquisition of history are Characters of the Inquisition by William T. Walsh, and Catholicism and Fundamentalism by Karl Keating. Both authors are Catholic but neither whitewashes the Spanish Inquisition. There were abuses: instances of cruelty, persecution, and personal vengeance. It would be strange if there were no abuses in a human institution that lasted so long. The BBC documentary says torture was used, but it could not last more than 15 minutes and could never be used twice on the same person. Walsh says that for torture to be used, a doctor had to be present, and at his command it had to be stopped. And there were other safeguards.

In any case, no Catholic should ever whitewash the Inquisition. We must honestly acknowledge that three Popes-Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII, and Alexander VI-tried to moderate the undue severity of the early Spanish Inquisition. We must also face this question: Why should anyone ever be put in prison or put to death for believing heresy? That is not the way of the Gospel, nor the path of reason. Walsh pointedly says that no Catholic today wants a return to the Inquisition. Nor do we want cover-ups of the past, for as Leo XIII said, "The Church has no need of any man's lie."

We do serve God in truth and so we should know the full truth about the Inquisition and refute the preposterous myths made up by enemies of the Church.

For example, Fray Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor whose very name is now a symbol of ruthless cruelty, actually checked the excessive zeal of the earlier inquisitors in many ways, including the limiting and mitigating of torture. Walsh thinks that torture under Torquemada was no worse than that used by American police in the 1930s. Also, under Torquemada's entire tenure as Grand Inquisitor (1483-1498), 100,000 prisoners passed before his various tribunals throughout Spain. Of this number, less than 2% were executed. In Barcelona, from 1488 to 1498, "one prisoner out of 20 was put to death" (23 executions). Torquemada is not the monster of the Black Legend; still, he was responsible for, as an estimation, between 1,000 and 1,500 deaths. And by burning, the common method for those times.

For those who want to be able to defend the Church on this matter, there is much additional information. For example, Keating points out that there were three Inquisitions: the medieval, begun in 1184, which died out as the Catharist heresy waned; the Roman, begun in 1542, which was "the least active and the most benign." And the Spanish, which he says had "the worst record." The Roman tribunal tried Galileo, who was not tortured but put under house arrest and later died in his own bed, after enjoying a papal pension!

The Inquisition never operated in England, Scandinavia, northern Europe, or eastern Europe. l have never heard of it being in Ireland or Scotland. This is significant, for though the medieval Catholic Church flourished in these areas, the Inquisition didn't exist there. Catholic medievalism is not synonymous with courts of orthodoxy. Finally, Keating reminds us that the Inquisition does not prove the Church to be false, but only that there are some misguided people within her courtyards.

The relationship of the Inquisition to art is now a troubling matter, after the new research which the BBC revealed. For example, in Dostoyevski's famous novel The Brothers Karamazov, his imaginary Grand Inquisitor is a sinister horror who is master of Spain and who intends to put Christ to death after He returns to 16th-century Spain. Dostoyevski's Grand Inquisitor is a phantom, a creature of delusion, spawned in ignorance. How can one believe in the Russian novelist's scenario? Can great art be built on lies? Torquemada was not master of Spain and would not murder Christ. And what of Poe's tale of the condemned man in The Pit and the Pendulum? Since the setting and the plot are wildly false, what is left? But because of the power of art, these writings will continue to haunt the imagination and work against the truth. They will remain as literary thorns in the side of the Church. l doubt if people will discard so handy a weapon as the Inquisition with which to beat Catholics over the head.

Taken from:
The Wanderer © 1996
15 February 1996

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